I'll not mince words here, so I'll just come out and say it: “Skyfall” is the best James Bond film in decades and possibly the best film in the series.
The two preceding Daniel Craig films had been far more grounded in their approach to Bond, a dramatic shift from the video game style of the character during the Pierce Brosnan years. “Skyfall” never reverts back to the more outlandish days of Bond, but there's a lavishness and stylishness at times (seen particularly when Bond travels to Shanghai and Macau) that's been missing from the films for a while. Much of this can be attributed to the gorgeous and stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, who proves that digital photography can be just as lush as shooting on film stock.
What we get with “Skyfall” is a Bond film that gives us most of the expected hallmarks, but in a way that still manages to keep things reasonably grounded. We get cool technology (courtesy of an all-new Q, played to measured perfection by Ben Whishaw) that's still highly plausible. We get exotic locales that are gorgeous but still foster a mood of gritty danger. Mendes even gives us Bond's classic “Goldfinger” Aston Martin DB5 (complete with ejection seats and machine guns) without it feeling garish and out of place.
He accomplishes this because, perhaps for the first time in Bond history, the conflict is aimed squarely at Bond's doorstep. For all the film's indulgence in the broader aspects of the character, we are ultimately given a story that is the most personal the character has ever endured. It is, at its core, essentially a story about a fractured family and the stakes have never hit closer to home for Bond.
The story largely revolves around Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who M (Judi Dench) gave up to save the lives of six other agents. Now, more than a decade later, Silva – who was tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese – wants revenge on the woman who destroyed his life. He has no aspirations of world domination or getting unfathomably rich or even necessarily breaking Bond, Silva simply wants to destroy M, to strip her of everything before finally killing her.
Because of such an amplified focus on M, we see more of her relationship with Bond than ever before and it's clear that she's been the mother Bond never really had (his parents died, orphaning him at a young age, we learn). Silva, it would seem, shared a similarly familial sort of bond (ahem) with M as well, so the plot takes on the form of a sibling rivalry at times, the spurned son exacting revenge on the mother who rejected and abandoned him.
But it's not just his relationship with M that is fleshed out, we (perhaps in a greater capacity than before) are shown a Bond who has become weary and beaten. The job has had its toll on Bond, a toll that he doesn't so easily bounce back from, bearing scars both literal and figurative.
As such “Skyfall,” even with its globetrotting and exotic women and gadgets, ends up feeling like the most (relatively) intimate and personal 007 film yet. It's not a deep character study, but it opens us up (often subtly) to the character of Bond in a more substantial fashion than before.
It's clear now that Craig is one of the best to fill the role (though Connery will forever reign supreme), providing the character with the right balance of style and edge that no other actor has yet pulled off. But it's Bardem as Silva that helps to propel Craig's iteration of Bond to even greater heights. Silva is a dark, twisted mirror image of Bond. We see in him what Bond could have been under different circumstances, if he had not been M's favored son and having this unique dynamic both provides us with one of the great Bond villains but also an effortless way to reveal more about Bond himself.
Bardem deserves mountains of praise for his work here. He's consistently superb in the roles he chooses, but Silva provides him with a streak of sustained nastiness into which he sinks his teeth to a thoroughly entertaining degree. He's never chewing the scenery, but he doesn't quite smolder either. Like the rest of the film, it balances perfectly between the two extremes.
It also needs to be said that Thomas Newman provides one of his best musical scores in years with a mix of classic Bond theme riffs as well as some of Newman's own signature motifs and progressions but peppered with a more modern bent than I've heard from him.
What it comes down to is this: Sam Mendes gives us one of the most well-scripted, well-paced, well-acted, well-shot and overall superbly constructed Bond films ever. Where it ranks in the overall canon it's too early to say as I'm penning this less than 24 hours after seeing the film for the first time. But that's something to suss out down the road. For now, let's revel in the fact that we have a Bond film that is exciting and gorgeous and, for once, substantial.